INPHO Dan Leavy and Damian de Allende will hope to shine for Leinster and Munster.
No pause for breath as Irish provinces launch straight into European action
The Champions Cup kicks off on Friday night as Toulouse visit Ulster in Belfast.

NORMALLY, THERE IS a brief pause for breath before Ireland’s top players plunge into European duty for their provinces after the November Test series but 2020 is different in every way.

The autumn Tests lasted all the way into December this year, meaning that Ireland’s concluding game in the Autumn Nations Cup took place the weekend before the provinces spring into action in the Heineken Champions Cup.

Given that this season’s condensed European campaign involves just four pool games each for Connacht, Ulster, Leinster, and Munster, there is less margin for error than ever so they will need to make strong starts this weekend.

Having signed off his first year in charge of Ireland with a 31-16 win over Scotland on Saturday, Andy Farrell will be watching on with interest given that he is already planning for the 2021 Six Nations in just nine weekends’ time.

“It’s obvious that competition for places is going to be huge over the next period of time because they’ve got to play against each other and they’ve got the European games,” said Farrell, also referring to the three rounds of inter-provincial Pro14 fixture that follow the back-to-back Champions Cup weekends and precede two more European games.

Ulster are first into action on the European front as they welcome Toulouse to Kingspan Stadium on Friday night, just three months since the Top 14 side knocked them out of last season’s Champions Cup at the quarter-final stage.

The northern province are due to provide an update on Iain Henderson’s fitness today after a knee scan in the wake of Ireland’s win over Scotland, but losing their captain would be an obvious blow.

Billy Burns will hope to have recovered fully from his head injury to lead Ulster if Henderson is indeed ruled out, while loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan will bounce back into camp after his first Test cap. Stuart McCloskey will be keen to start racking up minutes again after just one appearance for Ireland over the autumn.

stuart-mccloskey James Crombie / INPHO Stuart McCloskey will be looking forward to his Ulster return. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

While Ulster have been flying with a settled squad in the Pro14, Toulouse have also impressed in the Top 14 so an interesting test lies ahead under the Friday night lights.

Leinster face an intriguing challenge selection-wise ahead of their visit to Montpellier on Saturday, with the French side coming off the back of an encouraging away win against Clermont on Friday night.

As always, Leo Cullen’s men provided the bulk of the Ireland squad, and the likes of Andrew Porter, James Ryan, and Hugo Keenan racked up huge workloads as they started all six games.

Johnny Sexton’s dead leg against Scotland is a concern while James Lowe also returns to Leinster camp injured after picking up a groin issue. Combining the many returning faces with the players who have driven Leinster to seven bonus-point wins from seven Pro14 games this season will be demanding for Cullen.

Connacht are also in France this weekend as they face a daunting task at Racing 92′s Paris La Défense Arena on Sunday afternoon. 

Andy Friend’s men were the only of the Irish provinces to play last weekend, winning their rescheduled games against Benetton in the Pro14, but they will need something special to win away against last season’s European finalists, who have won seven of their 10 games in the Top 14 in the current campaign.

It may prove to be one of the more entertaining contests of the weekend if Connacht bring their incisive attacking qualities to the fore in Paris. With a home tie against Pat Lam’s Bristol to follow the weekend after, it’s certainly not an easy task for the westerners in this first block.

Munster feature in the final game of the opening weekend on Sunday evening as Harlequins visit Thomond Park. Lineout coach Jerry Flannery will provide insight for the Premiership outfit but the really fascinating thing here is if we see more of the promising attacking developments in Munster’s game in a big fixture like this one.

eoghan-masterson-and-head-coach-andy-friend James Crombie / INPHO Andy Friend's Connacht have a tough task first up. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Johann van Graan’s side have hinted at development in recent weeks in the Pro14, while some of their young homegrown players have excelled and put their hands up for selection in Europe.

While the Pro14 has painted a very rosy picture of the health of Irish rugby in the provinces, this weekend will be a better barometre in these challenging circumstances of finding the balance between momentum and reintegrating key players.

With the Six Nations already looming in the background, Farrell will be watching on in a mixture of hope and trepidation as he looks forward to the returns of the likes of Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong from injury but fears others will get hurt.

“Lads are going to fall by the wayside over the tough schedule over the Christmas period, so I don’t think you’re ever going to have a full squad, but any side would welcome the quality of Tadhg and Ringer, etc,” said Farrell.

“There’s all sorts of other lads who are going to come back into the frame, fitness-wise. There’s always an eye on preparation for what’s going to be around the corner after Christmas regarding the Six Nations.”

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